More Confusion About the Free Will Debate …

Jerry Coyne yesterday posted a Sunday Free Will post, using a comment by Jeff Johnson as a backdrop. I’ve talked before about how some people don’t really know the philosophy they’re talking about and the comment seems like not only a good example of that, but of the importance of making modest claims in case it turns out that you don’t understand what your criticizing.

Johnson starts with this:

Why do compatibilists want to redefine the term “free will”?

Answer (also given in some of the comment replies to this): They don’t. They argue that the term free will really does or ought to be what they argue for, and that our previous takes on what “free will” meant were just plain wrong, in the same sort of way that saying that slavery is now immoral can be seen to not be changing the definition of moral, but simply us discovering what it really means to be moral. Ultimately, they are driven by trying to preserve what we really need in the concept of free will and cutting out all the confusing and problematic stuff we don’t need, and thus eventually having a clear, non-contradictory and correct concept of free will. So, essentially, what they are doing is what I argue philosophy’s main goal is: conceptual analysis. It’s not, then, like they’re changing a mathematical axiom or something like that, but hopefully clarifying what the concept actually is and what it actually means. So not redefinition at all.

It should be clear why incompatibilists want to abandon it: because it truly does not exist, it stems from an illusion in our minds, and it confuses people into thinking that maybe God does exist after all.

Um, except that Johnson has no idea what the term “compatibilist” and “incompatibilist” mean in this debate. Compatibilists are people who hold that the concept of free will is compatible with a deterministic world. Incompatibilists all argue that the concept of free will is not compatible with a deterministic world. There are two sub-categories of incompatibilists. Determinists are, I think, the type he means here and they are the ones who argue that since the world is deterministic there is no free will. Libertarians are the other category, and they argue that because we do have free will, the world is not deterministic in this way. So only the former sort of incompatibilist wants to abandon it and considers it an illusion; the latter type considers it real and not to be abandoned. I’m a Libertarian when it comes to free will, and thus am an incompatibilist, and his description of what should be clear about my desires doesn’t even hit my desires. And this is bad because he seems to lump libertarians and compatibilists into the same category, despite the fact that compatibilists reject pretty much everything that libertarians accept. That’s more than a little sloppy; it completely confuses the debate.

It seems that compatibilists squirm uncomfortably when faced with the reality of a material deterministic world because they fear that if our choices and our will is not “free” in this traditional way that somehow we lose some or even all of our humanity.

Problem: Compatibilists actually deny that we do have free will in that traditional way, which should have been obvious since he starts with accusing them of wanting to redefine it. They do not accept that free will needs to be free in that way to be a meaningful free will. Only incompatibilists — determinists and libertarians alike — believe that. That they do not acccept that the only free will worth having is the sort of traditional free will that clashes with determinism is what makes them compatibilists in the first place. It’s totally arrogant to suggest that they are merely acting on a fear of losing humanity whwen you don’t understand what their position is, and it makes you look like a moron when someone points out that they don’t accept that thing that you claim they’re afraid of losing. Has Johnson ever read anything Dennett, for example, has said about free will?

They don’t seem to grasp that our choice at any moment can be algorithmic and determined by the state of our brain and body, and that we could not have chosen otherwise, yet we still have all the human things like loving and feeling and the seemingly non-deterministic things like reasoning and intending and sincerity and honesty. It seems that compatibilists fret over the worry that these human qualities are somehow impossible in a fully material and deterministic world.

Actually, compatibilists argue that, in fact, our choice at any moment can be algorithmic and determined by the state of our brain and body and still be considered meaningful choices, and so that we can retain reasoning, intending and all of those other things. That’s the heart of their position. That’s why they’re called compatibilists. That’s why they want to adjust the concept of things like choice to ensure that we can still be said to be choosing even as it’s just another brain process. For them, choosing is just as much a brain process as seeing, and it’s just as reasonable to talk about choosing as it is to talk about seeing. So, ultimately, Johnson is claiming that they fail to grasp the principle that is the basis for their entire position. Again, has he actually read anything compatibilists are arguing, or is he just totally confusing them with libertarians?

The compatibilist position feels like a fearful straddle of God world and real world because they just aren’t quite able to grasp that how we observe people to be actually is the product of an entirely materialist deterministic world.

Actually, the heart of their argument is, in fact, that how we observe people to be actually is the product of an entirely materialist deterministic world. Libertarians will deny the “deterministic” part, but compatibilists won’t. All Johnson does here is dig the whole deeper and deeper, castigating them for straddling God and real world for not accepting or grasping positions that they clearly accept and grasp. That’s what happens when you feel qualified to criticize philosophical positions you don’t understand.

Perhaps that we can not (at least for now) build a conscious machine worries them. Or even scarier, the possibility that someday we really may build a conscious machine worries them more. And these worries cause them to waffle about in the middle hoping some third way will appear to save their cherished notion of humans somehow elevated above the level of being products of pure biochemistry.

Dan Dennett is a compatibilist. He believes that we could build a conscious machine, and seems to be quite looking forward to it. He clearly does not think that humans are elevated above the level of being products of pure biochemsitry. Congratulations; your argument doesn’t even apply to the most famous compatibilist in existence. Heck, it doesn’t even apply to libertarians as well, and would be beyond the pale describing them, and they at least deny the position you’re advocating here, that it’s pure biochemistry (deterministically interpreted).

Just like the optical illusions created by our mental processing of the perception of color values on boundaries between contrasting colors, the feeling that our will is “free” and unconstrained by the physical computational structure of our brain at any moment is an illusion.

Prove it. Where is your evidence? I see no need to simply dismiss that experience as illusion without you having dramatic and damning evidence that it is an illusion, and an assertion that everything must be determined won’t cut it, nor that “the brain is involved”. Until you show that intentional actions are indeed determined, I refuse to reject such fundamental experiences. So hop to it.

And there is no need to fear that these facts diminish our ability to voluntarily engage in action or resist external coercion. Those are natural human behaviors that are products of our deterministic brain, and their existence is abundantly evidenced by everyday humanbehavior.

Which is precisely what compatibilists argue, and determinists and libertarians — the incompatibilists — deny. So you’re a compatibilist and don’t know it.

So what is the need to nervously cling to insistence on some special reduced concept of “free will” out of fear that without it we somehow lose our humanity? I’m calling this pseudo-dualism. Instead, by clearly understanding this distinction between libertarian free choice and algorithmically determined choice we truly discover our actual humanity, and it is every bit as beautiful and satisfying as any vague dualist or compatibilist pseudo-dualist conception of humanity ever was.

Which is actually the position that compatibilists take. The “pseudo-dualist conception of humanity” is not the one that compatibilists adopt. So what Johnson has done here is portray compatibilists as nervously clinging to an outdated and false idea that … they … don’t … actually … hold? Wonderful, that. This argument wouldn’t be one against libertarians, let alone compatibilists. And Jerry Coyne thinks this comment is good? What’s good about it? Please, someone tell me, because it seems to me to be only good as an example of how some people really do need to learn more philosophy before commenting on it.

Coyne then moves on to replying to Massimo Pigliucci’s reply to him about free will, with a bunch of short comments that he thinks are good but also seem to miss a lot of the point:

* The concept of causality is unclear:

. . . there is a free use of the concept of causality which, as I pointed out in my original post, is far from being clear at all, and of course is most definitely extra-scientific, meaning that science can only help itself to it, not investigate it empirically.

* There is an important difference between living creatures and nonliving matter:

. . . it is interesting to see that Matthew cannot conceive of a significant difference between filled polymers and brains, despite the obvious fact that brains, and not filled polymers, are alive, thinking, feeling, etc. Please do not take this as an argument for vitalism, it most definitely isn’t what I mean. But I find that that line of argument is somewhat question-begging: we are trying to figure out how chunks of matter can behave in such drastically different ways from other chunks of matter, so to point out the obvious (that they are all chunks of matter) hardly helps moving the debate forward. And of course, as someone commented in response to Matthew, it is no surprise that postmortem brains are just as inert as polymers. What interests us is what happens before they become postmortem.

But if anything is true, it’s that there’s no important material difference between nonlife and life. After all, the latter evolved from the former.

But, of course, they don’t have the same functionality. And so we need to determine, as Pigliucci says, what makes choosing systems different from non-choosing ones to allow for choices. Pointing to them all being matter is pointless. You might be able to use it as an argument against libertarians if not for that whole “Quantum stuff is material as well and is not deterministic, so it isn’t the case that all matter is deterministic” reply, but to return to what Johnson said this absolutely doesn’t work against compatibilists, since they accept that. So keeping the two groups separate is really important.

I claim again that the onus is on critics of compatibilism to show that our brains are not subject to the same determinism as, say, a billiard ball. I also claim that there is evidence that our will is “illusory” in the form of many experiments showing that our sense of volition can be completely disconnected (or more strongly connected than warranted) from our actions.

Um, I think that this paragraph needed proofreading. Tying back to what Johnson said, compatibilists accept that, but so do determinists who are not compatibilists. Since Coyne didn’t deny that compatibilists hold the beliefs that Johnson claimed they do, you can presume that Coyne considers himself an incompatibilist, which would make him a critic of compatibilists, which would … did he really just mean “critics of incompatbilism here? But then he talks about the evidennce, and talks about our sense of volition being completely disconnected or more strongly connected from our actions, which makes no sense at all. If he’d given a reference to this evidence, then I could judge myself, but he doesn’t, and so I have no idea what he means here. But I think it’s probably wrong.

Parsimony suggests—and evidence supports the view—that the laws of physics apply throughout the universe, and certainly to our brains.

Of course, the laws of physics contain some things that are not deterministic, and moreover if we discovered that we needed to have non-deterministic brains physics would do precisely what it did for the quantum and change to reflect that. This is called “Having your cake and eating it too”.

True, we don’t understand where our sense of agency comes from, or how it might have evolved—if it did. But this is a free-will-of-the-gaps argument. Like consciousness, free will is an epiphenomenon of our complex brains, and a material product of those brains. Which brings me to the final point in Massimo’s second post:

However, this illusion of deciding and deliberating is both time-consuming and expensive in terms of energy expended. If it’s doing nothing, then why wouldn’t evolution have filtered it out? Anyway, it’s not a “free-will-of-the-gaps” argument if the gap is the entirety of what you’re trying to explain. The thing under consideration is our sense of agency, what it is, and what it does. Saying that you don’t have to actually explain it here is like saying that you don’t need to explain what you’re trying to explain to explain it, which is fundamentally insane when you think about it.

Ultimately, compatibilists hold that we can have a useful and meaingful concept of free choice that respects determinism. If Coyne and Johnson think that’s true, they’re compatibilists. If not, they’re incompatibilists and then have to explain why we have an illusion of free will that has no causal impact on our actions and essentially is just an epiphenomenon, noting especially that if it has no causal impact it can’t be selected for either. They need to start by actually understanding the positions involved and determining which one is the one they actually support. Coyne, for example, criticizes Dennett but does he really disagree with him? I think that even Coyne himself doesn’t know.

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